Repeatedly, in a multitude of settings, I hear complaints about people in leadership positions: the executive director, the principal, the president, the head of staff… you name it. From the neighborhood association to the city council and beyond, leaders are considered not simply mistaken or misdirected or misinformed, they are stupid, idiots, evil. Motives are not questioned, they are assumed malevolent. Decisions are not disagreed with, debated and discussed, they are maligned and the people who made them castigated. The benefit of the doubt doesn’t exist anymore. Public postings of perceived ineptitude have replaced personal conversations seeking understanding and resolution.
And we wonder why the pool of people willing to occupy leadership roles is so shallow.
When we operate out of a default mode of disdain, we get the leaders we deserve: the ones who don’t give a whit about what others think, the ones who seek power for self-aggrandizement and abuse the privileges their offices afford.
Research has shown that the biggest indicator of the dissolution of a relationship is contempt, described in an article from Business Insider as “a virulent mixture of anger and disgust.” Susan Heitler, writing in Psychology Today, notes, “Empathy and contempt are polar opposites.”
I believe we are living in an age of cultural contempt.
When adults insult teenagers grieving the death of friends shot and killed in a mass shooting, and a group of fraternity brothers film themselves spewing racial and ethnic slurs, and memes making fun of children with disfiguring genetic disorders go viral, our moral compasses have collapsed. Empathy has left the building; anger and disgust have overtaken any sense of connection and concomitant compassion.
No wonder people of goodwill soon succumb to the relentless pillories and step aside.
Civility is not the answer. I understand the critique that civility is code for silencing the oppressed and delaying, if not denying, justice. We are nowhere near mutual respect. We are an ocean away from mutual trust. We need to begin with recognizing the reality and destructiveness of our mutual contempt. We must individually and corporately recalibrate our moral compasses.
I had the pleasure of hearing Jonathan Walton of Harvard Divinity School speak at this year’s NEXT Church gathering. His answer to a participant’s question sticks with me; he responded that we must know and name our “moral frame.” How do we morally view life, people, situations? He noted that his moral frame meant he is always aware of who the most vulnerable person or people are in the room. He knows his moral frame, and others know it too because he names it.
I began to think about my own moral frame and here is where I landed: I believe everyone is a beloved child of God made in God’s image. Additionally, I believe that transformation is possible. These two frames shape how I view everything and everyone. Now that I am clear and explicit about this framework, I am clearer and more explicit about my beliefs, motivations, words and actions. Contempt for another cannot fit in this picture. The frame cuts it out. Disgust cannot remain either. And if I believe that transformation is possible then I cannot write off anyone. Now that my moral frames are visible and known to me, I am obligated to check to see if what I say and do align with them. And when they don’t (and they often don’t), I am forced to make a choice: Do I want to live with integrity or not? Am I willing to do what I need to do to live within the parameters I believe God sets for my life or not?
Let me be explicit, blunt, uncompromisingly clear about this reality: Countless times I have answered, through my actions, a resounding and hurtful “no” to both of those questions. My only hope in the wake of such personally caused destruction is God’s promised grace and the forgiveness won for us through Christ.
In this age so rife with cultural contempt, what is your moral frame? Make it explicit, known, visible in word and deed so that a grassroots movement of empathy can transform our culture. Transformation is possible, promised by God even.
Grace and peace,